Businesses have habits.

And just like people, the effects are incredibly powerful. They can provide scaffolding to reach their goals nearly effortlessly – or work feverishly against them.

They can be bloated, inefficient, and cranky, clinging to the life support of days gone by and resisting any semblance of change.

Or they can be lean, efficient deliverers of fabulous service and value, seeking to improve a little bit each day and purposefully scanning the horizons for new opportunities.

Sound familiar?

If your business (or department or job) sounds like the former, it’s likely entangled in massive knots of bad habits.

That’s okay. We can untangle them, and we already know where to start.

We can use the snowball approach on businesses too. It’s just like flossing.

The first several times I tried to start flossing, I’d start out full-speed and end up with a mouthful of bleeding gums too sore to touch the next day. That momentum would quickly fade until the next scolding from the dentist motivated me to try again. Then the process would repeat.

The first several times I tried to overhaul a business, I’d start out full-speed and end up with a mess of unintended consequences that often crippled daily operations. Attention would quickly be diverted into managing the stress and fallout, leaving the original grand plan to gather dust until it was resurrected again months or years later.

Just as with flossing, the only way to interrupt the failure cycle is to start small.

Floss one tooth.

Make one change.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg recounts Alcoa’s incredible turnaround under the leadership of Paul O’Neill. At his first investor presentation, O’Neill shocked the audience and triggered a massive selloff by focusing on safety. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEO’s. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to the habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution, ” he said.

Continuing in a conversation with Duhigg, O’Neill reveals his beliefs. “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

Within a year, Alcoa’s profits were achieving record highs. By the time he retired, Alcoa’s net income was up 500% and its market capitalization increased by $27 billion. All by focusing on one tiny thing – safety.

I’ve seen it work too.

Two years ago, we were tasked with overhauling the management and operations of our 210-room resort. To do it, we knew we’d need to develop depth in our leadership team, but that isn’t something you can manufacture. It has to be earned and cultivated over time.

We started with one simple metric, converting our labor into “hours per occupied room.” Each week, we’d share our forecasted rooms and show our department managers how many hours that translated into. At our daily Standup meeting, we’d report the hours over or under for each department.

Because we’d taken off the table any shortcuts that would detract from our guest experience, progress was slow. At first, many managers weren’t sure exactly how much their employees could accomplish in a day. In some cases, it wasn’t very clear what an employee’s responsibilities were. Expectations often weren’t defined, and feedback was lacking.

The first signs of progress came when managers started capturing the details of what their teams were doing. The only real change that created was increased awareness. But with that awareness came a natural motivation to get better. Soon, ideas were flourishing, and departments were empowered to try them out. Checklists were developed. Quality control was implemented. New positions were created, and other positions were merged or replaced with technology. Sub-par equipment was identified and upgraded. Work areas were cleaned and refreshed.

Progress and pride bubbled up from every nook and cranny of our organization. What started as a simple calculation was transformed into a conversation about leadership and responsibility that involved every individual on our team.

Just last month, we finally achieved those stretch goals that once seemed impossible. It feels good to see it in print. But it feels even better to see it on the faces of our empowered and valued team members. By starting with one simple measurement and adding layers over time, we increased profits, engagement, compensation and benefits, service levels, and the overall strength of our culture. Today, we have one heck of a snowball rolling towards a bright future.

What tiny change can you use to start building positive momentum for your business?